Imagine for a moment that John McCain had won the presidency. Once the chills pass and the surf-music sounds of “Bomb, bomb Iran” fade, think about what this outcome would have required of the electorate. An unpopular incumbent party with abysmal approval ratings would have been rewarded with additional years in power. The American people would have ignored their intense conviction that the country is on the wrong tracka view held by 76 percent in the exit pollsand stuck with the devil they knew over the change agent they didn’t. A stunning upset, the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline on steroids.
Yet when the Democratic Congress was returned to power with increased majorities in both houses, hardly anyone batted an eye. The single remarkable thing the Capitol Hill knitting circle led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid accomplished over the last two years was a negative: they managed to become even less popular than President Bush. That’s no easy feat. Since late 2005, Bush’s approval ratings have seldom budged above the low 30s. Only 27 percent of those who turned out on Election Day told exit pollsters they approved of the president’s performance in office.
Heading into the election, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll pegged Congress’ approval rating at 18 percent. This is not some partisan scheme by Rupert Murdoch or Roger Ailes to embarrass the Democratic majority. An earlier CBS News/New York Times poll found a 15 percent congressional approval rating, with net disapproval standing at an eye-popping 60 percent. Back in May, Gallup reported, “Approval of Congress has dipped below 20% for only the fourth time in the 34 years Gallup has asked Americans to rate the job Congress is doing.”
Republicans predictably hate the Pelosi-Reid Congress. More surprisingly, Democrats and independents do, too. If there is intelligent life in outer space, it probably thinks the House and Senate are doing a lousy job. It’s easy to understand why: the Congress that was elected in 2006 has given everyone a reason to hate it.
It has tried to do enough liberal things to raise conservative ireincrease taxes, expand taxpayer funding of embryonic stem-cell research while extending it to abortion, block offshore drilling, boost the minimum wage, pass a bloated farm bill, enlarge the federal government’s role in healthcare. It has, as much through its own leadership’s fecklessness as Republican obstructionism, failed to do enough of these things to outrage liberals. And while independents claim to love divided government, they also dislike the “Do-Nothing” Congresses that tend to result. (Before Republicans get too carried away with all this, they might remember another reason voters hate the Democratic Congress: many of them mistakenly think it is still controlled by the GOP.)
Above all, this Congress was elected to help bring an end to the war in Iraq. Two years later, there is no end in sight. There have been surges rather than timetables and escalations that dwarf any draw-downs. It’s true that Senate Republicans filibustered Democratic legislation to attach strings to the Iraq War funding, thwarting Pelosi and Reid. It’s equally true that these Democratic leaders capitulated by passing war funding without conditions, actually outspending President Bush on some of the war supplementals (though much of the additional money was, like our Mesopotamian adventure itself, unrelated to any readily identifiable national-security purpose).
“We have provided all of the money the president requestedand more,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer boasted in March. They proved equally compliant when it came time to extend the Patriot Act, reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Services Act, and offer immunity to telecommunications companies that complied with Bush’s national surveillance program. Antiwar voters and civil libertarians soon discovered that expecting Democrats to promote their interests was like waiting for the Republicans to shrink the federal government and protect the unborn.
Which brings us to the central problem: in our Coke versus Pepsi political culture, the only way to punish the Republicans for their broken promises is to reward the Democrats for theirs. And so the voters did. Down went Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Congressman Christopher Shays in Connecticut, and Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon. At this writing, the Democrats have picked up over 20 House seats and at least six Senate seats. Congressional Republicans, having lost interest in reform when they started outspending Bill Clinton a decade ago, failed to deliver on the promises of 1994. Now they are back to their pre-1994 numbers in both houses.
It’s an imperfect punishment. Just as in 2006, when the Democratic tide took out the John Hostettlers and Rick Santorums alike, democracy isn’t always discriminating. Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, a fiscal conservative who showed occasional flashes of independence, was clever enough to point out in an ad that his Democratic opponent was a Bush sycophant herself when the president was popular. He lost, but McCain mini-me Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the only Republican senator to the left of his Democratic challenger, won. In the House, such promising Republican challengers as B.J. Lawson in North Carolina and Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania fell short, while undeserving incumbents like Don Young of Alaska and Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota (who is Ann Coulter without the sense of humor) held on.
One of the key races that kept the Democrats from acquiring a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority occurred in Alaska, where Sen. Ted Stevens appears to have won his seventh election to the upper house despite being a convicted felon. Proponents of term limits have often pointed to the Politburo-like re-election rates of congressional incumbents, and if these results hold they will have a new poster boy.
That the Republicans earned their electoral rebuke does not mean the Democrats, based on their record for the past two years or promises for the future, deserved to win. The Barney Frank Democrats’ support for the bailout, the shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act hardly qualify them to solve the country’s financial crisis. With the exception of a few grizzled committee chairmen who have been clutching their gavels since Tip O’Neill was speaker, they will be every bit the rubber stamp for Barack Obama that congressional Republicans were for Bush.
The enlarged Democratic Congress will probably make millions of Americans richnot by promoting policies that grow the economy but by continually expanding the definition of wealthy taxpayers who need to pay more. They will also claim to protect free choice, in the form of legislation ending secret-ballot elections for union organizing and trying to pass the Freedom of Choice Act, which would sweep aside every meaningful state or federal law restricting abortion. They will consider cutting military spending, not by bringing troops home or shrinking overseas commitments but by eliminating weapons systems. Democratic leaders will probably avoid reviving anything as sweeping as Hillary’s healthcare plan or Bush’s amnesty, but expect miniature versions of both to fly beneath the radar.
If the American people loathe Congress’ handiwork now, wait until Pelosi’s minions actually start doing something. Who knows? It might be enough to make congressional Republicans look attractive by 2010.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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